Thousands of members of Pakistan's tiny Hindu minority are fleeing to neighboring India to escape increasing persecution in their Muslim-majority country.
Lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Vankwani told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that several thousand among Pakistan's estimated two million Hindu citizens have fled the southern province of Sindh, where a majority of the community’s members lives.
Vankwani, who is head of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said his community has a long list of grievances. "Their places of worship, particularly in the province of Sindh, are not protected. Even their daughters are not safe [from being kidnapped and forcefully converted to Islam]," he said. "During the past four years 18,000 to 20,000 Hindus have left Pakistan and are unlikely to return."
In Sindh's capital Karachi, Hindu human rights campaigner Amarnath Motomal said that the forced conversion of abducted young Hindu women into Islam is their main problem.
"Some of our young girls are lured into leaving their homes and we never see them again," Motomal said. "Whenever we go to the courts to ask for help in recovering them, we inevitably run into a powerful Muslim cleric or organization that claims to have converted them to Islam."
He said that some of the women are even forced to accept their conversion in the courts. "Just imagine a kidnapped woman being surrounded by 50 men and already threatened with death and even with her family, too, being massacred. What else can she do, apart from accepting publicaly that she has embraced Islam out of her free will?"
There are no official statistics available about such incidents, but Pakistani media has reported
numerous such cases in recent years. Sindhi Hindus claim the number to be in hundreds.
Motomal said that most Hindu families in Pakistan are horrified by the prospect of the forced conversion of one of their young female members. "We want them to tell us clearly if they want to forcefully seize our property or would like to kill us all," he said. "But it is unacceptable to celebrate forced conversions into Islam after abducting our women. It is extremely painful."
Motomal believes that religious extremists are behind such acts. "There are two governments in Pakistan. The visible one is that of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while the hidden one is that of religious fanatics," he said. "The government always assures us that it will provide protection because we are equal citizens of Pakistan, but in reality it has little authority."
Pakistani human rights watchdogs are also concerned. In its recent annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that while "precise numbers were difficult to ascertain, members of the Hindu community decried forced conversion of Hindu girls, especially in Sindh."
The commission noted that Mahesh Malani, a Hindu lawmaker in Sindh, had also claimed that an "increasing sense of insecurity among Hindus" caused by forced conversions was forcing them to migrate to "safer places."
But in Karachi Javed Rehman, a spokesman for Jamia Binoria, one of Sindh's largest Islamic madrasas, rejected such claims. "There is no such thing happening. Some minority community organizations fabricate such stories to collect funds from the West," he said.
Akhtar Baloch, a journalist in Karachi, told Radio Mashaal that the rapid growth of radical Islamic madrasas in the province now threatens Sindh's traditionally tolerant culture.
"Undoubtedly a new class is emerging from among the students and alumni of these madrasas," he said. "If they don't even tolerate Muslims who don't subscribe to their doctrines, how can they leave the Hindus alone?"
Lawmaker Vankwani said that he is working on legislation that would permit Hindu men and women to marry and convert only upon turning 21 and 18 years, respectively.
But the proposed law might face innumerable hurdles in parliament because of possible opposition from Islamist political parties.